Torah as Spiritual Challenge

Judaism is a great storehouse of treasures and blessing. And it is a vital, dynamic, living conversation that spans the globe and the centuries. Every generation inherits the accumulation of text, music, commentary, law, custom, recipes, and secret wisdom. And it is the responsibility of each generation to fully receive, re-interpret, add to the treasure and pass it on in a form that is more relevant and more alive to our present-day challenges.

The challenge we are given as we receive Torah is to step right in to the conversation midstream. The miracle of Revelation happens in the conversation. And it is our sacred responsibility to hold up our end. That word — responsibility — makes a lot of sense if you understand it as the ability-to-respond.

Psalm 46 says, “Nahar, p’lagav y’samchu Ir Elohim.” (“There is a river; its streams water the cities of God.”) Rashi, the great medieval commentator asks, “What river is this?” and then concludes that it is the river that flows forth from the Garden of Eden, the place where we all come from, the Garden of Delight. The river that flows out from this garden of perfection is still flowing, but it has become an underground river that branches out in many streams beneath our feet. Right now as we read these words, it is flowing deep through the holy ground of our lives. It is the river that connects us with our Source and quenches the thirst that underlies all thirst. This river of solemn joy, ever present beneath the surface, invites us to dig deep within this here and now to find the truth of our liberation. Judaism provides the shovel.

Our inheritance is a treasure chest filled with tools, created and refined for thousands of years, that can help us to dig beneath the surface of our lives; to find meaning here and now; to act in ways that reveal the essential mystery of Creation and our interconnection with all life. When we are connected to that river of joy, then we have the strength and inspiration to participate consciously in our own evolution. These treasured tools are language, story, culture, the rhythm of the festivals, music, meditative techniques and the ancient dreams that were born of the wilderness.

These tools are sometimes locked away, and hidden behind a great misunderstanding. And then the river of solemn joy flows on beneath us while we become dry and crusty and bitterly imprisoned on the surface of things. It is as if this great misunderstanding is the concrete pavement separating us from the ground of our being.

As a rabbi I often receive the brunt of this misunderstanding. People come to me with questions about how they should live their lives and they see Judaism as a set of rules. If you just follow these rules, then everything will be fine. Tell me what’s kosher and what’s treif. Tell me the words that should be said on this occasion. What will make me yotzei? What is the Halacha?

The word Halacha means, “The Way,” the Tao. It is the spirit of guidance, manifested, that helps us take the next step in our journey. Originally Halacha was something fluid. Torah was interpreted anew for each generation according to principles of goodness and kindness and justice. “Every day the Torah should seem to you as if it had been given on that day,” says the Midrash.

The word Mitzvot, usually translated as commandments, has in its Aramaic root the meaning, “connection.” Through the Mitzvot we can connect with our Source. With every spiritual practice I do and with every prayer I say, I ask the question, “Is this working?” Is it connecting me to that river of solemn joy, to the truth hidden inside this moment? Does this practice make me more compassionate? Does this prayer open my heart, expand the boundaries of soul, and connect me to others? Or does it separate me, blind me to beauty, make me more judgmental, and dull my senses? If so, then it cannot be Torah, for Torah can only be “Darchei Noam, the ways of pleasantness.” If it doesn’t grow my love, then it isn’t Torah, for Torah is a manifestation of the Great Love, the “Ahava Raba” with which God loves us.

Our generation, like each generation of Jews has done before us, must enter into the holy conversation of our tradition. It is a conversation across time and distance that dies if we refuse to hold up our end. We do this by reaching in to Torah, into the treasure of our inheritance, in search of answers to the questions of our time, to deal with the dilemmas, the crises of body, heart, mind and soul that so urgently call. And here is the misunderstanding: You think that receiving is a passive thing, that the truth is already formed, that someone else’s Torah will speak to you, that the Torah of the past will suffice. Or you think that our tradition is something fixed, and if it doesn’t fit your sensibilities, you’ll just look elsewhere.

When we reach in to Torah, we receive its essence through word, music, or story and then mingle that essence with our own desire. That mingling happens in the innermost reaches of the heart. To participate in this process we must cultivate and nurture an inner life. And we must create a life that is spacious enough that we can pay attention to the subtle shiftings of the heart, to the still small voice that is forever whispering to us the truth of who we are becoming. Psalm 95 says “HaYom,” You will experience the infinite treasure of this present moment, “Im b’kolo tishma-u.” If only you would listen to that voice.

Reaching in to the Torah means that you must participate in a process and be part of the conversation. You must dig down beneath the soil of your everyday life and find its holiness.

A Chasid asked his Rebbe, “How can I best serve God?” expecting to hear a profound and esoteric answer. The Rebbe replied, “You can best serve God with whatever you are doing at the moment.”

And here is the challenge: How can I make my life holy, moment by moment? How can I tap into that underground river that flows beneath my feet?

My way of reading Torah, of “doing Torah,” is influenced by three streams. The first is Martin Buber’s philosophy of Dialogue which places the locus of holiness in “the Between,” in the conversation, in the connection, in relationship. My relationship with the text demands that I bring all of my self — heart, mind, body, spirit, memory, aspiration to the experience of Torah. It demands my full presence, which means sometimes setting aside old interpretations, and allowing the truth of this moment to emerge in the space between the text and myself. It means becoming vulnerable, acknowledging feelings that are triggered in me, and following the trajectory of my associations. What does this remind me of? The spiritual challenge of Torah is to let it touch me, even when it makes me uncomfortable.

The second stream of influence is dream work. When I started paying close attention to my dreams, I began to learn their language and develop tools for translating that language into my waking wisdom. I worked for a number of years leading dream groups. It was an amazing and enlightening experience. Each week one person would bring their dream to the group. On first reading, the dream often seemed so simple and we wondered what there would be to talk about for three hours. Every time, by the end of the evening it felt as if we had just begun to mine its riches. So many pathways had opened, and we were always surprised. One aspect of the technique we used was to pretend that someone else’s dream was our own, to ask, “What would this dream mean if I had dreamt it?” Through my work with dreams, I learned to look beneath the surface, to pay attention to language, image and feeling tone.

There was a moment in my first year of rabbinical school when I realized that the Torah was so much like a dream. It is the dream of our people, the dream that illuminates our inner landscape, the dream that holds the key to our waking wisdom. That moment of realization felt like I was waking up and receiving a great gift. I held the Torah before me and asked, “What would this dream mean if I had dreamt it?” And the truth is I had… we have all dreamt this Torah into being. To receive the spiritual challenge of Torah means to wake up and rise to the task of interpreting this awesome dream in ways that are useful to our lives, in ways that speak to this moment.

One way of understanding dreams is to see each element, each character in the drama as parts of ourselves. To dream is to manifest all the various and conflicting elements that make up our psyche, so that we can begin to truly know ourselves. Self-knowledge becomes then the key to self-realization.

I call this process of receiving the Torah as our collective dream, “Dream Exegesis.” When I come to a text, the first rule of dream exegesis is: This is not about some other people who lived way back when. It is about what is happening inside me, at this very moment. And then I use the dream of Torah to send me to that truth within. I find that the further within I go, the more that oh-so-personal truth is actually a truth that is universal. I enter through the personal, and if I persevere, if I don’t stop at the sentimental, nostalgic or historical, then I will be rewarded with a Wisdom that transcends the personal and connects me with the treasure of my humanity.

The third stream of influence comes from my experience with aliot as they have been practiced in Jewish Renewal. This tradition is to “call up” to the Torah anyone who resonates with the themes of the text that is to be recited. Those who come up for an aliyah have the opportunity to receive a blessing that is connected with the theme of the text. As this tradition evolved, I began to understand that every blessing holds within it a spiritual challenge. I must rise to the spiritual challenge in order to receive the blessing. I saw that coming up for an aliyah was not a trivial thing. It held the opportunity to rise to the challenge of Torah, to do the work that I was born to do, to step up to my potential. I can only do this through practice. In this way my spiritual practice is given to me through Torah. In receiving the blessing, I must discern the inherent challenge, and then rise to that challenge through my spiritual practice.

When I receive Torah as spiritual challenge, I must rise to the occasion. I call on the strength and the inspiration of my ancestors and I receive a vision of what is possible. For me this is such a joyful process. A challenge energizes me and pushes me to reach and expand beyond my current beliefs and opinions. I am called into the unknown. Through the challenge of Torah I receive my life anew.

Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.